Thursday, August 13, 2009

Profile of a Supreme Court Justice

Back in 2007 I read, My Grandfather's Son, by Justice Clarence Thomas. It was the first time I had any exposure to the life of Clarence Thomas, and I found his autobiography to be really informative. I have been thinking of Justice Thomas over the last few weeks with the fawning media attention of now Justice Sotomayor. To read the papers, or to watch TV, one would think that all of our previous Justices were the children of wealth and privilege, never once having to overcome any obstacles. Justice Thomas life story quickly shows that simply isn't true.

Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in a small community just outside of Savannah, Georgia. His father abandoned his family very early on. Clarence Thomas states in his autobiography that he wouldn't meet his biological dad until he was nine years old, and would only see him twice in his youth. His mother did the best she could to raise him, but by the time he was seven, she realized she couldn't do it on her own. There were two boys and one girl counting Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas's sister would move in with other family while Clarence and his brother would move in with their grandparents. When they moved in, each boy had a grocery sack that contained all of their possessions. Both of the boys would come to view their grandparents as their parents, hence the title My Grandfather's Son. Clarence would even call his grandfather "Daddy".

His Daddy was hard on him and his brother. The boys weren't allowed to participate in after school activities. "Daddy" felt the boys needed to learn, and was worried that the two boys would get in trouble in after school activities. When school was out during the summer, the kids weren't allowed to lay around and play. The family moved to a farm every summer and worked from sun up to sun down. Clarence Thomas' grandfather / Daddy tried to instill in the boys a strong work ethic that would serve the future Justice for the rest of his life.

As Clarence got older, he began to pursue a future in the Church. He attended school at two seminaries and the College of Holy Cross. Later he attended Yale Law School. All of his educational opportunities were helped because of the life lessons he learned from his Daddy. During his college years, he rebelled against his Daddy, and his Daddy's beliefs. However, when his life finally hit its lowest point, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the only parents he really knew: his grandparents.

Before reading, My Grandfathers Son, I was unaware just how much race and racism factored into Clarence Thomas' life. Prospective employers assumed that he only got into Yale, and only graduated, because of race quotas. Because of that, no one wanted to hire him. Justice Thomas recounts taking a 15 cent price tag off a box of cigars and putting it on his diploma to remind him exactly how much the diploma was worth to him. Justice Thomas would remember this lesson later in life when he worked as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission. In spite of the racism he grew up with and saw in college, many of his faults he blames only one person for: himself. The tough parts of his relationship with his Daddy, his drinking, radical times in college and even his failed marriage, he blames only on Clarence Thomas. This is probably another lesson his Daddy gave him: take responsibility for your own actions.

One event in his life that Clarence Thomas shouldn't take the blame for is his confirmation hearings. Democrats may accuse Republicans of racism during the Sotomayor hearings, but Clearance Thomas's opponents took personal attacks to an all new level. The vast majority of people who know Justice Thomas look back at the 1991 hearings and admit that Anita Hill was less than honest in her testimony. Justice Sotomayor may have been asked to defend her public statements. Justice Thomas and his family were put through the ringer.

Justice Sotomayor has a very interesting life story. However, the way the media has portrayed it has inadvertently hinted that the other Justices don't have interesting life stories. Hopefully, this helps put Ms Sotomayor in perspective.

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